In the mid-1990s when Russia’s foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov wanted to signal his alarm at Nato’s expanding girth, he picked a Washington DC meeting spot long favoured by policymakers: Strobe Talbott’s kitchen table.
In a 40-year career that has taken him from the foreign bureaux of Time magazine via the US State Department to the Brookings think-tank, which he now heads, Talbott has applied true kitchen diplomacy to global hotspots, often diffusing tensions by inviting key players into his own home.
“One reason people liked to come to our kitchen was not just because of the conversation but because of Brooke,” says Talbott of the late Brooke Shearer, his wife of 38 years who passed away in 2009 and whom he credits as having been a full partner in all of his life pursuits. “Brooke presided over the hospitality of the place.”
Talbott, 65, and Shearer bought their split-level house in the Cleveland Park neighbourhood in 1985. Photographs of Shearer, sons Adrian and Devin and three grandchildren brighten up the kitchen, along with the presence of two energetic dogs, Luke and Cappy. The one addition the Talbotts made to the room, with its functional oval table and wooden chairs, was a skylight. “That was Brooke’s idea. She moved the wall and opened up the room,” says Talbott, author of 12 books and such an early riser that he has been known to host New Year’s eve parties and celebrate by London time to keep to his 5am writing schedule.
A drawing of a schoolhouse by New Yorker illustrator Chuck Saxon hangs on the kitchen wall. Around the corner is a David Levine caricature of Talbott, complete with bear cubs to mark his transition to government. Propped up nearby is a cartoon of Shearer in a 1992 campaign sweater bearing a picture of close pal Hillary Clinton.
Talbott, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, met his wife through his Yale roommate, Shearer’s brother Derek. At Oxford, where another housemate was fellow Rhodes scholar and future boss Bill Clinton, Talbott, who had studied Russian since boarding school, established early foreign policy credentials by translating the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev. “I had worked for Time in the summer. I got the translation job because the manuscript was acquired by Time.” For the next 21 years, he worked as a Time correspondent before being tapped for the State Department in 1993, first as a diplomat with oversight of the post-Soviet states and then as deputy secretary of state until 2001. As one of Clinton’s principal foreign policy advisers, Talbott is credited with helping to create much of the architecture of the post-cold war world.
The interiors of the Talbott house attest to his time abroad. Arranged over the doors of the peach-coloured living room are souvenirs from the Middle East, Turkey, Russia and Yugoslavia: “We lived in Yugoslavia from ’71 to ’73. We collected stuff from countries we spent time in.” In the dining room, Russian sketches hang over a side table, though they compete for attention with three bicycles stacked against a wall. “I eat fewer dinners in the dining room than in the kitchen,” says Talbott, an avid cyclist who can clock 20 miles on weekends, between brunches with his children.
Much of the furniture was picked out by Shearer’s godmother, Elizabeth Gordon. “She was the editor of House Beautiful. She gave us a lot of furniture, but much of it reflects Brooke,” he says of Shearer, who is remembered around Washington for her warmth and mentoring talents. In the living room, an entire floor-to-ceiling, jam-packed bookcase is devoted to books authored by friends.
Strewn across the floor of Talbott’s second-floor home office, is the ultimate travel memento: a real bear rug from a 1988 trek into the Soviet wilderness. “We had a fabulous guide. He presented this to us. It stank to high heaven until I got it to a taxidermist.” The paper-stuffed study, with its sloping ceiling, is a veritable storehouse of Talbott’s political life. There are bound volumes of the Yale Daily News, which he edited, along with manuscripts with accounts of his globetrotting days and policymaking that included the shaping of US strategic dialogue with India. More books tackle governance and global warming. Photographs of Talbott with Clinton and various dignitaries share space with a framed copy of a poem, “A Toast for a Composer’s Widow in Tashkent,” which Talbott wrote for the New Yorker in 1987. “An older lady in Tashkent I met had a connection with my great-grandmother in Dayton, Ohio, who was a founder of the Westminster Choir College and gave grants to up-and-coming musicians. The Tashkent lady’s late husband had been one of them.”
Over the mantelpiece is a photograph of Talbott’s parents, siblings and wife on the Soviet camping trip. “My family, going back five generations, have taken wilderness trips, usually to the Canadian woods, the American west, Alaska. My father led the family adventure trips. He’s been a huge influence. He is a dedicated environmentalist, the first person to call my attention to global warming,” says Talbott of his 91-year-old father. “He’s recently travelled to Oxfordshire and Cornwall and has been bird-watching in Cuba. He’s in Oklahoma right now at a climate change conference. We see each other all the time.”
Downtown, at a complex that includes a cheerful cafeteria, Brookings sometimes serves as an extension of Talbott’s kitchen table, playing host to foreign ministers, members of Congress and resident academics. The warren of studies creates a campus-like atmosphere. Yet with an in-house television studio and huge convening power Brookings, which has outposts in Doha and Beijing and is ranked first out of think-tanks worldwide, can also deliver quick political and economic analysis from Massachusetts Avenue. “We are investing in the latest technology and using social media to reach as much of the world as possible,” says Talbott.
Though Brookings is often cited as centre-Democratic, fielding officials in the Obama administration, Talbott points out that the think-tank is non-partisan. “We have Republicans on the board; both of my predecessors were Republican.” Talbott notes that Brookings played a large role in several historic, bipartisan initiatives: “Brookings helped shape the Marshall Plan, the UN, the Department of Homeland Security. The Congressional Budget Office was a Brookings idea.”
So what does Talbott make of the congressional partisanship and budget brinkmanship that threaten, once again, to push the US government into lockdown? “It’s gotten worse. Extreme partisanship has gone up rather than down. For most of modern history, there was considerable overlap between the two parties in how they voted. But a lot of people were elected to Congress in 2010 who think they have the mandate to shut government down,” he says. The solution? More time at the kitchen table? “Particularly with the current deadlock between the parties, it’s all the more important that we have outfits like Brookings that are a partisan-free zone; and that promote civil debate, good-faith compromise and pragmatism.”
“This was made in a studio outside of Valencia,” says Talbott, pointing to an amber classical guitar in the living room. “I have two of them. I bought this one at The Guitar Gallery on Connecticut Avenue and take lessons from a superb teacher, Piotr Pakhomkin. I first took lessons over 40 years ago from a Venezuelan classmate at Yale.
Now I’m studying with a master guitarist who is 40 years younger and a Russian. I had a guitar in my office at the State Department and I have one at Brookings. I play when I can. Having lessons is important as it motivates me to make a little progress.”